You will remember what happened on Roosevelt’s first bear hunt in the South in 1902 in the Mississippi Delta in Sharkey County, in the Outward area. Holt Collier had been hired to guide that hunt as well. Collier’s dogs cornered a bear. The President was about a mile away. Collier sounded his horn, then proceeded to secure the 23-pound black bear with a rope around its neck. When Roosevelt arrived on the scene, he refused to shoot the tethered animal because it would not give the bear “a sporting chance.” Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot the defenseless bear received headlines throughout the world five years ago.
When a Brooklyn, N.Y., toymaker saw the story, he started making cute little stuffed bears that he called “Teddy Bears,” named after the President. Those Teddy Bears have been selling like hotcakes ever since.
President Roosevelt might not have shot anything on his first Southern hunting trip, but he made up for it on this current one. Thanks to Collier, the final wild game count killed on this trip was six deer, one wild turkey, 12 squirrels, one duck, one possum, one wildcat and three black bears. All of these game animals were eaten by the hunters, except for the wildcat.
President Roosevelt had nothing but admiration for the hunting skills of Holt Collier. Plus, the President was impressed that Collier could neither read nor write but had the leadership skills and “the dignity of an African chief.”
Of course, those of us who live here have known for decades the exceptional marksmanship and tracking skills of Collier, who killed his first bear when he was 10 years old and has killed or assisted in killing more than 3,000 bears in his lifetime. He has killed more bears than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone combined. He is the most sought after hunting guide along either side of the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.
The bear the President killed reportedly weighed well over 300 pounds and was placed on Collier’s horse and taken back to their camp. A photograph of Collier and President Roosevelt was taken commemorating this event, but it has not been made available to newspapers yet.
President Roosevelt proclaimed this hunt a great success.
The photo of Roosevelt and Collier was never found. By the time this hunt occurred in 1907, more than a million Teddy Bears had been sold, with tens of millions more sold worldwide since then. The Teddy Bear even became the official State Toy of Mississippi.
Holt Collier was a unique historical figure in Mississippi in so many ways. He was born a house servant slave to the prominent Howell Hinds family for which Jackson’s Hinds County was named. At 10 years old, he displayed unparalleled marksman and hunting skills. He became a hunting companion of the Hinds family. He traveled extensively with the Hindses all over the U.S., dressed not as a slave but as a Southern gentleman.
When the Hindses went to fight the Civil War, the 14-year-old Holt was told he was too young to go. But he stowed away on a riverboat and joined the Hinds men in training. He remained with them as a teenage soldier and a spy fighting for the Confederacy throughout the war. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History confirmed in 1970 that “The only Negro for whom we have actual evidence of service in the Confederate Army is Holt Collier.”
After the war, Collier joined his wartime commander, Sullivan Ross, on Ross’s ranch in Texas. Ross was a future governor of Texas, and Collier worked for him as a cowboy for over a year, before returning to Greenville. For the rest of his life, he made a living by providing wild game for loggers, railroaders, levee construction crews in the South, and by serving as a hunting guide for affluent people from all over the United States.
Holt Collier died Aug. 1, 1936, at age 90. He is buried near Greenville. He has a Confederate soldier’s headstone on his grave, honoring his service during the Civil War. The 2,068-acre Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge near Greenville is the only wildlife refuge in the nation named for an African-American, insuring this legendary hunter is remembered forever in our Southern Memories.